Nature Talks - pic1

Experts say sunbathing benefits birds in several ways: drying off after bathing or getting caught in the rain; straightening bent wings; and releasing vitamin D. This pelican seems content to just soak up the sun's warmth.

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Sept. 21, 1985.

BIRD BEHAVIOR is a most interesting subject.

The other day we received the following letter from Fritz Weigler of Moultonborough.

“Enclosed is part of a letter I received from my sister-in-law who lives in Watchung, N.J. It seems like a strange action for the birds. Any comments you can make about this in your column will be appreciated, as I am a faithful reader.”

The enclosure read:

“We saw something very strange here last week on our asphalt driveway. I called Art so I do have a witness in case you don’t believe me.

“Have you ever heard of bird sunbathing? There were four robins and a flicker and that is what they seemed to be doing. It had not rained so they weren’t trying to dry themselves. They had their wings spread and their tail feathers and were on their sides and also their heads on the driveway. They were in the part of the driveway that was in bright sunlight. Every now and then some of them would become alert, put their wings and tail in proper order and then flop back in the sun in the spread-out position.

“The flicker seemed to put his head on the driveway with a bang and we saw him do it a couple of times after being upright. They looked wounded and I would have assumed that if it had been just one bird. But, not with five of them. We do see some spread like that after flying into one of our picture windows. They are stunned and eventually fly off but this was different. As I said before, they really did seem to be sunbathing.”

Frankly, I have never witnessed birds sunbathing. I have enjoyed watching birds taking a bath along side of a brook, in a shallow place, in our pond and, of course, in our birdbath. In the book entitled “The Wonder of Birds,” published by the National Geographic Society, a photographer of a blue jay lying on the ground with wings and tail widespread carried the following explanation:

“Birds bathe year round — but not always in water. Basking in the sun releases vitamin D from oil in the blue jay’s feathers. Absorbed through the skin or swallowed during preening, vitamin D may prevent rickets. Heat may also cause pests to migrate from the body to the head, where they can be scratched.”

British author Robert Burton, in his book “Bird Behavior,” published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf of New York, wrote:

“The value of dusting is not clear, and neither is that of sunbathing. At its simplest, the bird sits with its feathers ruffled and wings drooping. At high intensities, it leans away from the sun with the nearer wing drooping and half spread, or it lies flat with both wings spread.

“Some birds probably sunbathe to warm their bodies in the morning, but it is noticeable that others sunbathe when the sun comes out even though the air is very warm. They pant at the same time so they are presumably already too hot. Furthermore a sunbathing bird looks “stupid”: it appears to be in a trance and often loses its natural wariness. A possible function for sunbathing in large birds is to assist in feather maintenance. When birds such as vultures, storks and pelicans soar for extended periods, their long flight feathers become bent. These birds sunbathe, whereas large birds that flap — herons, swans and cranes — and those that have short wing feathers, such as albatrosses, do not. It had been found that a twisted vulture feather straightens out in four to five minutes when exposed to the sun, but takes two to three hours in the shade.”

It would appear that Mr. Weighler’s sister-in-law did, indeed, catch four robins and a flicker sunbathing.

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Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.